Barbara Bell, police officer, teacher and charity volunteer: born Blackburn, Lancashire 13 December 1914; died London 3 April 2005.
Barbara Bell was a woman who passionately, and defiantly, loved women at a time when the word "lesbian" was scarcely whispered, let alone acknowledged as a valid "life style". All her life she actively sought out - and found - other women like herself in places ranging from Girl Guide camps and Parisian clubs to a Watford approved school and a Nigerian village.
Born in Blackburn in 1914, the daughter of a Lancastrian mill worker, she left school at 14 and eventually headed for London, where she soon achieved three ambitions: her own flat, girlfriend, and profession - the police force.
Women police officers were a comparatively rare species in those days and it was in that environment that she discovered many "kindred spirits": as she remarks in her delightfully raunchy autobiography, Just Take Your Frock Off (1999), "There was a lot of creeping into each other's rooms at the section house."
London was facing the ravages of wartime and, working on beats all over London, both West and East ends, Bell came across a high-class lesbian club in Mayfair where she would go on a night out. She had already, aged 17, savoured its Parisian equivalent: Le Monocle, a club run by a Brylcreemed woman called Lulu - a Bohemian haven to which she escaped with Trudi, her first (German) girlfriend. This initial liaison set the stage for numerous other relationships with women, including two "marriages" and various brief, illicit encounters: what she defined as little "flutters".
She dressed with panache and from an early age - encouraged by her father, who had a tailor friend - took huge delight in choosing and co-ordinating outfits, such as her first mannish, made-to-measure pinstripe suit. Women friends in Brighton, where she lived for many years, remember her as a very stylish dresser. Several came to know her through the local women's walking group, to which she belonged into her eighties. One describes her as always looking "very chic, in her black leather trousers and cap". Another, Mica Bobsin, recalls, "That was very important to her, how she came across. It kind of told the story about her."
Bell followed her stint as a policewoman with several equally challenging jobs, in England and abroad: deputy headmistress of a girls' approved school; training teachers in Nigeria (before Independence in 1961); teaching children who had learning disabilities.
No "political animal", she showed little interest in gay politics and distanced herself from the annual Pride celebrations. Her idiosyncratic personality was captured on television in It's Not Unusual, a BBC2 series shown in 1997 charting lesbian and gay lives in the 20th century. Bell was one of several women featured in the first programme, which covered her early life in Blackburn.
Despite her antipathy towards the campaigning side of gay life, she became very involved with, and committed to, the lesbian and gay community one way and another. In the early 1960s, when most same-sex relationships were still in the closet, she and a girlfriend zoomed around the south coast in their sports car counselling isolated and heartbroken lesbians. Later, during the Aids crisis in the 1980s, she became a volunteer with the Sussex Aids Centre and Helpline, "buddying" men and women with HIV/ Aids and their relatives. Her friend the gay-rights activist Chris Farrah-Mills regards her as
one of the most charismatic footsoldiers and hardiest protagonists of the gay movement. She got involved right from the beginning. This slightly eccentric older woman turned up, just saw a need and said, "What can I do?" She rolled up her sleeves and did practical things. She was so jolly, an incredible "life force". There were no ifs and buts. It was "These are our own people who are in need", and going out there and doing it.
Barbara Bell will be remembered, above all, as a feisty, inspirational woman who spoke her mind and who, with her flamboyant persona, helped to subvert the stereotypical image of the dour dyke. A Brighton friend, Linda Pointing, saluted her as
truly remarkable in her desire to be open about her sexuality in a very candid way. She didn't have wealth to cushion her from prejudice. Her courage and bravado saw her through - and her delight in people.
She never lost her eye for an attractive female. Even in her mid-eighties, and in the final pages of her autobiography, she admitted to being still "on the lookout. I can't be celibate for ever. It's not in my nature."
Veronica GroocockReuse content